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The Last Days of Sulla

Samnite soldiers depicted on a 4th Century BC frieze from Nola in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

This coin is from 79 BC, the year that Sulla resigned his dictatorship and returned to private life. Although his extensive reform of the constitution was intended to reestablish the supremacy of the Senate. His efforts to clear Rome of those who disagreed with him left a legacy of warlords and oligarchs who would struggle for power until the Republic finally gave way, a half century later, with imperial rule under Augustus and a cult of deified emperors.

"And to such an extent did he put more confidence in his good fortunes than in his achievements, that, although he had slain great numbers of the citizens, and introduced great innovations and changes in the government of the city, he laid down his office of dictator, and put the consular elections in the hands of the people; and when they were held, he did not go near them himself, but walked up and down the forum like a private man exposing his person freely to all who wished to call him to account."
- Plutarch, Lives, Life of Sulla, 34 

Sulla saw his political enemies gain power after he left office, and he is said to have warned Pompey of the risks of supporting Marcus Lepidus for consul. Sulla's wife died, he remarried, and he died in 78 BC, within a year of retiring.

An interesting article on the year 79 BC by Allison Rosenblitz, Oxford, 2015, "The Tide Trning: The Politics of 79 B.C.E.", concludes:

"The narrative that moves smoothly from Sulla to the rise of Pompey not only distorts Pompey 's career, but also - and more importantly - obscures the instability and deep trepidation in Rome at the end of the Sullan era. When Sulla laid down power, he did not leave Rome in a stable settlement; he left Rome facing an uncontrolled, inherently unstable, and danger."

The Samnite Connection

The moneyer is relatively unknown, although his Samnite name recalls a leader of the Social War that eventually led to the Samnites and other Italians integrating as Roman citizens. Gaius Papius Mutilus was a Samnite leader who fought the Romans in the Social Wars he was defeated by Sulla. As a Roman citizen he was later an ally to Carbo and Marius against Sulla. He was proscribed after the civil wars and committed suicide in 80 BC.

Livy describes his end:

"Mutilus, one of the proscribed, came secretly with muffled head to the rear door of the house belonging to his wife, Bastia; he was not admitted, his wife saying that he was proscribed; and so he stabbed himself and splattered his wife’s doorway with his blood"
- The History of Rome by Titus Livius, Book 89 

However they may have been related, Papius would have wanted to distance himself in 79 BC from Mutilus. He references his Lanuvian origins with Juno Sospita on the obverse and the link with the Griffin on reverse is uncertain but perhaps also connected with Lanuvium, a city on the southern edge of the Alban Hills c. 30 km SE of Rome, or the cult of Juno Sospita.

The Coin

Roman Republic, L. Papius 79BC, AR Denarius serratus, Rome mint, (18.3mm; 3.88g; 3h).

Obv: Head of Juno Sospita right, subsellium control mark behind

Rev: Gryphon leaping right, sella control mark below; L·PAPI in exergue

Ref: Crawford 384/1; Sydenham 773; Papia 1

Notes: Arnaldo Cunietti-Ferrando Collection - Part II. Out of 690 examples in ACSearch - none of this control set found (#124 from Babelon - Obv: subsellium (curule chair) and Rev: sella (seat or bench))

James Bonanno has an excellent page listing the varied control marks which would have been used to secure dies and the serration as well a tool thought to have been to make counterfeit coins more challenging. Hi documents at least 231 varieties with all but two having only a single die. The die for my coin listed as number 34. Crawford (Roman Republican Coinage, 1972) describes the controls as a "random selection of pairs of everyday objects". For some nice looking examples see Liv Yarrow's blog, which shows the coin with a number instead of symbols - suggesting that there are at least 424 varieties.


The previous owner of this coin was from Argentina, a numismatist and author of several books on coins of South America, who died November 3, 2019 in his home in Buenos Aires. He founded in 1965 the Historical and Numismatic Museum of the Banco de la Nación Argentina. He for nearly 50 years oversaw the publication of a periodical called “Cuadernos de Numismática”. He was from a family that was not unfamiliar to numismatics, his great uncle was honorary curator of the collection of of HM Victor Emmanuel III, the last King of Italy and his first coin a gift from his father of a Roman Republican denarius of Publius Scipio. (ref: Correo del Sur, 13-Nov-/2019, Daniel Oropeza Alba).

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